In part one of the story about the trip to COTA for the ARX season finale with Subaru, I focused on the series and the preverbal “10,000-foot view”. In part two we will dive in and have a closer look at the team and the cars.
First though, two fun facts.
Number one: Lance Smith, who is the owner of Vermont Sports Cars, the team that runs the factory Subaru effort as “Subaru Rally Team USA”, rode in the first Audi Quattro race car to come to the U.S., when it was delivered to be raced by John Buffum.
Fun fact number two: said legendary rally driver John Buffum is now the team manager for the Subaru Rally team.
For those of you who do not know the exploits of John Buffum in the glory days of Group B, Google and YouTube are your friends.
Lance Smith founded Vermont Sports Cars in 1988. They have been running Subaru’s since 2001, including working with ProDrive in the 2001 U.S. Rally Championship. The team has been in its current configuration since 2005 and has recently moved into a state of the art 75,000 square foot facility that, according to Lance, is as good as or better than anything a NASCAR team would have. The team employs fifty-six people on a full-time basis.
Within the facility, they build cars for Rallycross as well as traditional Stage Rally. They take a steel body shell and frame, then build their own chassis around it. They bend all their own tubing, and they do all of their own carbon fiber work in-house. One of the cool components they use for the body panels is Twintex infused carbon fiber. Where standard carbon fiber is brittle and can shatter with contact, the Twintex panels have a pliability to them and will tear. The more important part is that they can be easily repaired. A combination of heat, adhesive and vacuum bagging can make the panel good as new. That is a huge cost and time savings for the race team.
The team also build their own engines. They use a billet block 2.0-liter engine, all the usual high-end internals, turbocharged with 52-56 pounds of boost to produce “over 600 horsepower”.
The team does use a few “off-the-shelf” parts. The suspension is from Reiger in Holland, though built to their spec and they use a Sadev transmission, which is pretty standard for the series.
One of the interesting regulations for the ARX series is the weight, cars weigh in at 1350kg, or 2976 pounds. That is far heavier than you’d expect, though it allows for weight to be strategically placed for the best balance. Lance said that the regulations for the ARX series are very close to the World Rallycross spec and that the series goal is to have a harmony between the two.
The one downside that the Subaru’s have against other vehicles in the series is that they have a much longer wheelbase. While the longer wheelbase does allow it to be able to put the power down slightly better, some of the tracks in the ARX series are fairly tight and the Subaru’s are not as nimble as the Ford’s and VW’s.
One point that Lance emphasized is that while the U.S. Stage Rally and the ARX series is the largest program in the world for Subaru, it pails in money and resources to the VW effort. The Andretti team that runs Tanner Foust and Scott Speed are the fully armed and operational battle station might of the VW factory from Germany, using Andretti Motorsports as it’s staging ground. VW’s budgets are multiples of what Subaru has available.
There is no such thing as a cheap race car, and rally cars are no different. Vermont Sports Cars will build you a car to go stage rally racing or ARX racing, but that car will cost you north of $500,000. That sounds like a lot, and it is, however, spend fifteen or twenty minutes looking at all the components and detail of the car, calculate the time it would take to build it, and the price becomes reasonable.
The highlight of the trip for me was that I got to ride along as a passenger for two laps around the COTA ARX track with Toomas “Topi” Heikkinen driving. Some might think that I’d be disappointed that I didn’t get to drive the car, but they would be mistaken. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d LOVE to have a go in the car, but Topi driving at 80% with me riding shotgun was way more fun than me doing a lap at 40% of his skill set around the track.
Due to other teams not wanting anyone to have an unfair advantage the lap I did was not on the normal race tires, they were more a street style tire. In addition, it had rained a little earlier in the day so the pavement section as a little damp. While I didn’t get to experience a full-on launch, I still did get to experience the acceleration of these cars offer do to the power and the very short gearing. Once Topi pulled third gear and was able to go flat, there was a shove into the seat much like launching a nine-second drag car on slicks! The brakes, they are superb as well. Even though I had cinched the belts down tight, I still felt myself get a little light in the seat when he jumped on the brakes setting up for the hairpin turn.
Going over the jump was absolutely smooth. You look at how nose down the car was over the jump, yet the landing was easier than hitting a big pothole in your street car.
I’ve been right seat for some fast laps in interesting cars. The Lexus LF-A comes to mind with that very sweet V10 engine, but I think this ride in the Subaru ARX car has to rank as the best. The different surfaces, the full-on acceleration, and deceleration, throwing a jump into the mix. Sure another two to ten laps would have been great, however, perhaps the scarcity of the laps drove home just how special the experience was. There was no time to sit back and take it in, I had to focus in on every moment. As I sit here and type these worlds here a few weeks later, I can still feel the heat and the lack of air flow in the cabin, the sound of the straight cut gearbox, the blur of everything going by with the limited visibility. It was very much THE E-Ticket ride.
My thanks once again to Subaru and the Subaru Rally team for the trip and the experience, it is and was one of those very special moments that I will treasure for the rest of my life, no hyperbole no b.s.
[Disclaimer: Subaru flew us to Austin to hang out with them at the race. They covered travel, food, and lodging.]